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13 meal-delivery services served up

Some made life easier, tastier, while others disappointing

By Sharyn Jackson, Star Tribune
Published: February 3, 2024, 5:04am
3 Photos
A Marley Spoon meal kit prepared by Jessica Bergman of Minneapolis. On the menu was stir-fried curry rice noodles with Chinese broccoli and peanuts.
A Marley Spoon meal kit prepared by Jessica Bergman of Minneapolis. On the menu was stir-fried curry rice noodles with Chinese broccoli and peanuts. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune) Photo Gallery

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s been almost six years since I gave up my Blue Apron subscription. I was a regular meal-kit user, but after having a baby, I found that I couldn’t keep up with the weekly deliveries of groceries and their corresponding recipes.

When my spouse suggested recently that we start using meal kits again, with the aim of bringing some consistency to our weekly grocery budget, I assumed we’d go back to Blue Apron. Then I did an online search, and found dozens of new players in the market.

I tried 13 of them.

Not only were there different formats — prepared meals, partially prepared dishes, gourmet groceries that get slapped together into meals with some guidance — but there were so many different flavors. It wasn’t all just sautéed chicken breasts and potatoes, though there was plenty of that, too. We enjoyed ramen and tagine, bulgogi and Beef Wellington. Even birthday cake.

Starting out: To pull this off, I took advantage of sign-up deals (Important: never start out paying full price). I succumbed to mouth-watering advertisements, dealt with buggy apps, forgot to skip some deliveries and wound up with a fridge overflowing with food, and made some amazing meals.

Meal Cost Breakdown

Does convenience cost more? A Marley Spoon meal averages $30 for two servings. We shopped for the same ingredients at Cub (via Instacart). See how it compared.

Turkey Smash Gyros & Oven Fries

2 potatoes: $2.20

1 red onion: $2.68

Garlic: $1.75

1 plum tomato: 70 cents

1 cucumber: $1.49

10-ounce package ground turkey: $6.99 (for 16 ounces)

1/4 ounce gyro spice: $3.69 for 3.25 ounces Greek seasoning

2 Mediterranean pitas: $3.99 (for 6 pitas)

1 package hummus: $5.99 (for 10 ounces Baba’s hummus)

4 ounces tzatziki: $6.99 (for 8 ounces)

2 ounces feta: $4.59 (for 4 ounces crumbled)

Cub shopping list: $38.40. You get more in quantity, but if you’re only cooking for one or two, you might not want the extra ingredients anyway.

A note about prices: Prices can vary widely. With add-ons, upcharges and freely distributed coupon codes, it’s hard to predict exactly what a box of food will cost from week to week (and it’s also why we didn’t include prices). The services no doubt benefit from that fuzziness. Blue Apron, CookUnity and Marley Spoon, for example, all average about $15 per serving, when you include shipping and other fees. Ultimately, expect that a weekly delivery of three meals serving two people will cost somewhere between $60 and $90.

How to choose: The best service will be subjective to your family’s circumstances. We found that a mix of prepared meals, gourmet groceries and you-be-the-chef kits worked for us.

I am still a member of three services. Is that sustainable? No. Have I saved money? Not likely. But I have managed to shake up my family’s meal-planning repertoire, exposed my kids to some new flavors, and had a lot of fun doing it.

Here’s what you can expect from 13 meal delivery services.

Blue Apron: The first breakout star in the meal kit world is still standing. It has changed a lot since those early times, when the recipes were crowd-pleasing basics. Now there are more dishes with varying difficulty levels. The possibilities are endless: healthy meals, put-stuff-in-the-pan-and-bake meals, frozen dinners. I was blown away by the ramen, which had so many components, down to the perfectly soft-boiled egg. The packaging was minimal, and the ingredients were of high quality, like Brodo brand chicken broth. I also liked the subtle shortcuts. For example, instead of sending garlic cloves and a nub of ginger, my box had a package of “sautéed aromatics” that I ripped open and squeezed into the pan. Saving a little time on chopping: much appreciated. blueapron.com

Marley Spoon: Maybe it’s just Martha Stewart’s charisma, but this service delighted me. The app and website are easy to use, transparent about prices (no small feat) and filled to the brim with gorgeous-looking recipes. I was most taken by the variety; these are not just for dinner. Meals can be breakfast (overnight oats), even dessert. Yes, I ordered a birthday cake. The delivery was the most confusing part; all of the produce came together in one little box, like someone had just filled it up at the farmers market. Cute, but it took time to sort things out by recipe. And some vegetables were so overripe they were leaky and a bit smelly. (They credited my account when I lodged a complaint through the app.) marleyspoon.com

HelloFresh: The first subscription I canceled is an otherwise popular one. There were a few too many shortcuts, to the point where I felt like I wasn’t doing any cooking, even when I wanted to. For example, I ordered an empanada meal I thought would appeal to my kids. What I received was a bag of frozen mini empanadas I could have bought at the store, a pouch of pre-sliced apples, and a bladder of yellow cheese sauce that looked like it came out of a pump. The dinner entree, a baked mashed potato casserole, was heavy. And when I ordered a four-serving meal, they sent four plastic packets of every item — four bags of chives, four bags of cheese, etc. Environmentally, it didn’t feel right. hellofresh.com

Green Chef: An all-organic, nutritious and a little more grown-up offering from HelloFresh. Just browsing the app felt like a healthy act. You can choose your meals by diet — low-carb, high-protein, keto, etc. Breakfast egg bites, smoothies and protein shakes were available as add-ons at checkout. The recipes offered more global flavors than its sister company, and while it nudged me in the Mediterranean direction with its suggestions, I enjoyed swapping my selections for 10-minute salads, Moroccan turkey tagine and fish tacos. greenchef.com

Gobble: Chopping vegetables is one of my least favorite activities, so I was drawn to this brand by the promise that their “sous chef” would do the prep work for me. Instead, I got whole veggies that needed to be scrubbed and peeled, while the primary components of the dish — the ones I actually wanted to put my own stamp on — were already cooked. Pot roast arrived as chunks of meat in a plastic bag, reminding me too much of canned stew; mashed potatoes were sent to me cooked and in pouches. On the flip side, the one prechopped vegetable, cauliflower, had turned to mush before I’d had a chance to use it. (They did credit my account after I wrote them an email.) gobble.com

Hungryroot: Imagine Trader Joe’s delivered. If you find that idea thrilling, you might like these grocery boxes. Hungryroot carries a line of its own products, a la TJ’s, that offer shortcuts to faster meals, like precooked grains and chopped veggies. They also sell brands that you won’t find at your average supermarket, which makes snack shopping feel like Christmas. French pot de crème? Yes, please. What’s innovative here is that you can select recipes that will auto-fill your shopping cart with the necessary ingredients. It’s easy to make swaps and adjustments to your cart. Pricing is abstract; you pay for a certain number of credits, then use the credits to shop. It feels like an arcade game, one that can get sneakily expensive. hungryroot.com

Little Spoon: This one is for the kiddos, though no one will stop you from sneaking a few bites. Compartmentalized dishware (it’s all recyclable) comes filled with deconstructed meals acceptable to an evolving palate. Lunchers contain make-your-own pizzas and PB&Js packed with protein and hidden veggies; Plates have some more sophisticated bites, such as edamame and quinoa. For the really little ones, there are smoothies and purées. We’ve been in a snack rut lately, so an add-on snack pack, with Little Spoon’s own brand of sweet (but not too sweet) treats was exciting at first, until my too-smart-for-his-own-good kindergartner figured out that “confetti dip” was actually puréed squash. Still, anything that gets my kids to try something new is working miracles. I only wish the plates were compostable. littlespoon.com

Cook Unity: These premade meals are designed by chefs we’re meant to know. You can look up their bios and find their restaurants in other cities, which makes eating at home feel more connected to the wider restaurant world. I was intrigued to try dishes from two New York chefs, Einat Admony of Balaboosta and Esther Choi of Mokbar, and “Top Chef” contestant Fabio Viviani. Big props to the packaging: Compostable containers of fresh food arrive in a reusable insulated bag, forgoing the cardboard box entirely. The only negative, besides the $15-per-meal price tag? Many of the dishes I ordered had close to 1,000 calories. The site does make it easy to sort for meals with less than that; I’ll pay better attention next time. cookunity.com

Factor 75: What wowed me the first week grew tedious by the third week. These fresh (not frozen) premade meals from the HelloFresh group, aimed at people on keto diets, are hearty, healthy and packed with vegetables. But they quickly become repetitive. The grilled salmon, for instance, tastes exactly the same whether it’s served over cauliflower “grits” or braised kale. When I realized I was paying $13 for a meal as exciting to me as a Lean Cuisine, I pulled the plug. If variety is a big thing in your house (as it is in mine), skip it. But for people for whom food is merely fuel, these filling meals are nutritious and require no work, just a two-minute blitz in the microwave. factor75.com

Earnest Provisions: Former restaurant chef Jeff Lakatos went solo last year with his meal service, which provides two a la carte menus per week for delivery or pickup in Mendota Heights. There is a main (your choice of meat or vegetarian), a couple of vegetable-forward sides, and a kids’ version that isn’t dumbed down. The week I ordered, we had a vegetarian shepherd’s pie made with lentils, an arugula salad with roasted grapes, and for the kids, beef and pork meatballs in gravy with mashed potatoes. Everything was packed in aluminum containers that went right into the oven for half an hour, infusing the house with all the good smells of a homemade dinner. If I didn’t live so far from Mendota Heights, I’d order again. earnestprovisions.com

Let’s Dish: This local company sells what it calls “barely lift a finger” meals in its stores. The partially cooked components are packed in separate bags, frozen and sold in one package. The shops carry more than 80 selections. A pasta dish came together incredibly fast, with frozen, par-baked pasta, a pouch of vodka sauce and precooked chicken and sausage. White chicken chili was ready to go; my job was to turn cornbread mix into a freshly baked side dish. Because these come frozen, you can stock your freezer with them at once, rather than relying on a weekly order. And they’re economical: A three-serving meal pack cost me $20. letsdish.com

Paris Dining Club: When Minneapolis’ Grand Cafe closed during the pandemic, chef Jamie Malone pivoted to issuing boxes of provisions that looked like precious, pink-paper-wrapped presents, filled with fine things like sourdough loaves, salty French butter and stuffed lobster. She has since turned those boxes into a calling card, now as Paris Dining Club. Subscribe for monthly dinners (starting at $60) or order a one-off; the menus are inspired by different regions of France, and often include some of the Grand Cafe’s greatest hits. parisdiningclub.com

Table 22: This national company facilitates the sale and delivery of meals-in-a-box from top restaurants around the country, including our own Martina, Union Hmong Kitchen, Alma, Colita, France 44, Cardamom and Petite Leon. Subscribe for a new menu each month. When I had a newborn, these ready-to-heat-and-eat meals were how I stayed in touch with the part of myself that had previously been able to freely leave the house for a nice dinner. The drawbacks: price, which can go up to $150 per shipment; a nearly monthlong gap between ordering and receiving, and the mystery of not knowing what you’re getting until the box has arrived. table22.com

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